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Billboard control bill is signed Baltimore allowed to ban liquor ads on outdoor sites

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Despite a strong industry lobbying campaign, Gov. William Donald Schaefer signed into law yesterday a measure that allows Baltimore officials to ban liquor billboards almost everywhere in the city.

The governor also took his own initiative to ban other ads -- announcing that alcohol and cigarette signs would be phased out on Mass Transit Administration buses and replaced with a state-sponsored ad campaign to discourage use of those products by young people.

Governor Schaefer, who has made preventive health efforts a hallmark of his administration, said he hoped his actions would help to minimize the impact of cigarette and alcohol advertising campaigns that target the young.

"I believe that advertising does influence young people," the governor said during the final bill-signing ceremony for the 1993 legislative session.

The billboard measure, which grass-roots community groups have been pushing for three years, allows the mayor and City Council to ban alcohol billboards and other large outdoor signs throughout the city, except for Pimlico Race Course, Memorial Stadium, Oriole Park at Camden Yards and on cabs.

City Councilwoman Sheila Dixon said yesterday that she will introduce a bill to implement the ban in September, the beginning of the next council session. There is not enough time to consider the measure before the council adjourns at the end of June, she said.

Ms. Dixon, a 4th District Democrat, said she has enough votes to pass the measure. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke also supports such an ordinance, said his press secretary, Clinton R. Coleman. "He plans to work with the council to draw up legislation that meets community concerns as well as legal requirements," Mr. Coleman said.

Although bothered by alcohol abuse among the young, Mr. Schaefer said he signed the billboard bill with "great difficulty." He said he was concerned, in part, that liquor billboards would simply be replaced by cigarette advertising. The governor said he also was concerned that the measure amounted to censorship and would hurt the local billboard industry.

The governor's signature capped weeks of frenzied lobbying, with dozens of letters and calls flowing into Mr. Schaefer's office, some from students calling for a ban and others from billboard workers fearing such a move would cost their jobs.

'Censorship bill'

Community groups and lawmakers urged Mr. Schaefer to sign the measure, arguing that the liquor industry is targeting poor and black neighborhoods, with many of the ads geared toward the young.

But members of the billboard industry said their signs are distributed throughout the city and that a ban would lead to layoffs. Industry officials also said such a prohibition raises troubling free speech issues.

While Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said the measure is constitutional, Mr. Schaefer said he is still not convinced. "Fundamentally, I think it's a censorship bill," he said.

Numerous states, including Virginia, either ban most outdoor liquor advertisements or have restrictions on their location.

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority also decided last year to ban tobacco advertising. Chip Bishop, a spokesman for the American Public Transit Association in Washington, said he knew of no other mass transit system, besides Maryland's, that has banned liquor advertising.

Voluntary cutbacks

The governor said he hoped city officials would try to work out a voluntary reduction in the number of liquor billboards with the industry.

"Any industry when they're pushed against the wall wants to talk," Mr. Schaefer said. "I think they'll voluntarily cut back on signs in the area."

Fred M. Lauer, director of governmental affairs for Penn Advertising of Baltimore, which owns most of the liquor billboards in Baltimore, said he would be willing to work on some type of compliance plan with city leaders. He did not rule out legal action if the ban is approved.

The company has about 960 billboards, about 20 percent of which are liquor billboards. Should the city approve the ban, he said the company would have to lay off a dozen of its 53 workers.

A sense of being ignored

But Ms. Dixon and community activists said they planned to press ahead with the legislation, saying the billboard industry has largely ignored their concerns over the years.

"They haven't been willing in the past to work with the community," said Bev Thomas, co-chair of the City Wide Liquor Coalition, a collection of 80 community, religious and church groups that pressed for the ban.

Mr. Lauer, however, said his company has tried to work with the community, removing alcohol beverage advertising from some areas, and plans to restrict it in the future.

State Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer said alcohol and cigarette advertising already is limited to 10 percent of ads on the state's 850 MTA buses. Those ads, which bring the state about $100,000 a year, are expected to be phased out over the next 18 months.

Mr. Schaefer noted that even if the bill is approved by the City Council, youngsters will still be bombarded with millions of dollars of liquor ads elsewhere, including from television, radio, newspapers and magazines. Communities, particularly churches, must take a stronger role in urging the young not to use alcohol or other drugs, he said.

A beginning

"This is not going to solve our problems, but it's a beginning," Ms. Thomas said later.

In other action, Mr. Schaefer signed a measure that would nearly triple the size of the Baltimore Convention Center to 300,000 square feet. The expanded facility is due to open in 1996.

The governor vetoed 10 bills, and legislative leaders said they saw no possibilities for an override.

The vetoed bills included a measure that would have added Caroline and Prince George's counties to those jurisdictions in which certain sexual displays are prohibited in places where alcoholic beverages are served. Mr. Schaefer said Prince George's was added in a Senate amendment to the Caroline County bill. Prince George's House members favored a veto since a hearing was not held on their county's addition to the measure.

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